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Birding Costa Rica high elevations

Digiscoping Birds When Birding Costa Rica- Always Challenging

All the bird pictures on this blog are digiscoped. What “rig” do I use you ask? Well, my scope is a 65mm Swarovski, I presently use a Sony Cybershot, and my adapter is about as “old skool” as you can get. Instead of some wonderfully designed device that steadfastly cradles and aligns the camera to the viewport of the telescope, my adapter is a plastic ring that was carefully cut from a small plastic Coke bottle and covered with duct tape. The plastic ring keeps my camera at just the right distance from the scope while the duct tape blocks out lateral light. All of my shots have vignetting but I just crop that surrounding darkness away with Window Photo Gallery.

It’s the cheap and easy solution to getting close shots of birds but that doesn’t mean that I get good shots all of the time. In fact, I hardly ever get good shots unless the bird poses for long periods in perfect lighting (and probably explains why I have so many nice images of Tropical Kingbirds and Great Kiskadees). Digiscoping in Costa Rica is downright challenging. I bet it’s not exactly a piece of cake in other places, but I suspect that it’s a lot more difficult in the land of low light, humid conditions, and dense vegetation. Not all of the sites nor habitats in Costa Rica are so difficult for photography but enough of the country is to make digiscoping seriously challenging.

Take yesterday for example. After pondering where to go for some Sunday birding, I settled on Volcan Barava due to its proximity to the house and the desire to digitally capture a variety of highland bird species. I kind of wanted to go to Cerro de la Muerte but didn’t feel like driving two and a half hours to get there so I settled on Volcan Barva. Despite this highland site being so close to the house (it’s maybe 12 ks), I don’t go up there that often because part of the road is in horrible shape. The habitat is mostly cut over until you get pretty close to the park but you can see a fair number of bird species in remnant riparian corridors. In the park itself (the highland section of Braulio Carrillo), there are trails through beautiful montane rainforest that hold the expected assortment of bird species.

My plan was to focus on getting recordings and photos of species that live in the higher elevation and not in the riparian corridors so I drove up to the park entrance first thing in the morning and waited for the birds. Most species have stopped singing at this time of year so I didn’t record all that much (a Slaty Flowerpiercer or two and Sooty-capped Bush-Tanagers), but bird activity was fair. Yellow-thighed Finches foraged in the thick undergrowth, Gray-breasted Wood-Wrens scolded from the dense understory, and Ochraceous Wrens called from the mossy canopy of old growth oaks. I seriously tried for pictures of these three species but was consistently foiled by a an impressive multitude of sticks, branches, and leaves. No matter what angle I tried, I just could not get a picture of those birds in the open. The only luck I had was with a single female flowerpiercer that hung out in some bare twigs long enough for me to snap off one shot and that was with a truly impressive, light-headed producing blast of spishing and Costa Rican Pgymy-Owl calls.

birding Costa Rica

The one, lucky female flowerpiercer.

I also managed to get two shots of Flame-throated Warbler but one of those was faceless and the other as grainy as cheap camera footage from the 1970s:

birding Costa Rica

A faceless Flame-throated Warbler.

birding Costa Rica

The seventies version.

Once the park opened, I walked along the main road with the hope that the better lighting at the edge of the forest would result in success. I did hit one or two mixed flocks and the light was suitable enough for my digiscoping set-up, but the dense vegetation and hyperactive nature of the birds still denied me photos of Ruddy Treerunners, Black-cheeked Warblers, Yellow-thighed Finches, Large-footed Finches, and even one singing Zeledonia. More spishing and pygmy-owl calling eventually resulted in the other two images of the day:

birding Costa Rica

Female Volcano Hummingbird and

birding Costa Rica

Fiery-throated Hummingbird.

Unlike warblers, treerunners, and other small insectivores, hummingbirds often sit still long enough for photos. Another reason why they are easier to photograph is because even if they rush away before you can snap off a sequence of shots, these glittering sprites usually come back to the same perch. Since most other birds in Costa Rica aren’t so friendly to the photographer, though, a combination of patience, playback, and a sweet SLR with its own 400mm lens instead of a spotting scope are what you really need for major bird photography. Oh what I could do with better equipment! Until that day arrives, I will just have to be stealthier, as patient as a sleeping volcano, and use more playback.